How-to-Identify-Major-Donors Board Donors Fundraising Fundraising Success Identify Major Donors Leadership Philanthropy

How to Identify Major Donors

Do you know how to identify major donors?

While at the foundation I helped launch, we received gifts from a gentleman we had never met. The gifts came at various times during the year and in various amounts — all over $1,000.

I tried to contact the gentleman by phone, but he never returned my calls.

He did, however, respond to my emails. So we carried on for some time corresponding through email.

We were a national organization. When we explained that we would be in his area and hoped to meet him, he went silent.

When I left the foundation, he was still contributing and had given close to $40,000.

Let me say — this is not how you secure major gifts!

This is an anomaly.

The foundation was new, and we were throwing a wide net to capture supporters – supporters at any level. We happened to capture this gentleman in this wide net.

Clearly, I don’t recommend your spending a sizeable amount of your time or money casting a wide net to capture major donors.

There’s a better way.

And it involves identifying those who are likely to give at a significant level.

The good news is I have a formula for you in identifying your ideal major donors!

Criteria to Identify Major Donors

Undoubtedly, be very intentional in creating a major donor prospect list — those who would likely support your efforts with a large contribution.

Your time is limited and you focus on major gifts because you need the resources to advance your mission.

This formula is your ticket to creating your ideal prospect list.

Here’s the formula:

1. To Identify Major Donors, they must have the ABILITY TO GIVE.

First, start by looking for those with the capacity to give.

For instance, consider a person’s giving history to your organization, other nonprofits, and political campaigns.

You are looking for giving levels and consistent giving.

These are key markers. In fact, they are indicators of a person’s ability to give.

Remember, you are looking for major donors. You must spend time identifying and cultivating those with the means to make a large gift.

2. To Identify Major Donors, they must be PASSIONATE ABOUT YOUR CAUSE.

Donors’ values, interests, and passions are the main driver in their decision to make a gift — certainly a major gift.

Without question, look at people’s patterns of giving in the community and to your organization.

Passion leaves a trail.

Then go beyond taking an initial look. Get to know your current and prospective donors.

Discover what ignites a person’s passion for making a difference.

For current donors, ask what makes them give. Find out where their passion lies within your organization. This will help you later be more specific on your asks.

It is often difficult to know what makes a person support your nonprofit’s efforts. You feel like you are fishing in the dark. To know for sure, ask!

3. To Identify Major Donors, they must be PHILANTHROPIC.

A person who is philanthropic is evidenced again by their past giving.

Just because someone can give does not mean they will give. Don’t spend time cultivating a person just because they are wealthy.

You cannot talk with someone with his or her back to you.


Once you know the prospect has the means to give, is passionate about your mission, and is philanthropic, put them on your prospect list. Engage with them in meaningful and effective ways.

Your list will change as you discover more information about the prospects on your list.

If you are a small shop, it’s ok you do not have an army, a prospect research staff, or a software program to identify potential donors. Without question, you can create a very valuable prospect list without those high dollar resources.

Use these criteria to establish a filter, and create a top major donor prospect list.

My goal as a fundraising coach is to help you be successful.

Fundraising success means focusing on what bring results. You must focus on securing the large gifts – major gifts, no matter the size of your organization.

And finally, I want you to keep these three attributes in mind when creating your ideal major donor prospect list.

If this article resonates with you, like it, share it, tell your staff and others about it!


Do you stop to consider these three attributes when identifying your ideal major donors?

Nancy Rieves, Ed.D. is a fundraising coach. She provides executive and development directors with a roadmap to maximize and sustain major gift fundraising. She prepares leaders to be confident and successful in raising money. Reach her at nancy@nancyrieves.com.


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